In accepting a group plea agreement from five previously convicted former New Orleans cops for the post-Katrina shootings on the Danziger Bridge, Judge Kurt Engelhardt announced the arrival of long-delayed closure following a “truly morose chapter” in the city’s history.
And indeed, there was an air of resignation, even fatigue, in the federal courtroom Wednesday. The families and supporters of the unarmed victims, who included a teenager and mentally disabled adult shot dead more than 10 years ago, stayed alert but silent, and not just because the judge had forbidden reactions of any kind. Engelhardt said their support for the new deal was a key factor in his acceptance of it.
The four former cops at the defense table, Robert Faulcon Jr., Robert Gisevius Jr., Kenneth Bowen and Anthony Villavaso, actively participated alongside their lawyers, the only hint of the severity of their situation being the orange jumpsuits and shackles they wore throughout the two-hour hearing. The fifth former officer, Arthur Kaufman, has been out on bond and wore a suit to court. He’s the only defendant involved in the blanket plea deal who was implicated in the cover-up but not the original crime.
That the case lasted this long, of course, is entirely Engelhardt’s doing. After presiding over the initial trial, he vacated the jury’s verdict and ordered a new trial amid an online commenting scandal by several lawyers in the local U.S. Attorney’s Office and one in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The far lighter sentences the defendants now face is on Engelhardt, too. Original sentences ranged from six to 65 years, but the new sentences, agreed upon by defense and prosecution following the government’s failed effort to have an appeals court reinstate the jury verdict, range from three to 12 years.
Engelhardt never made a direct connection between the comments and the jury verdict. Even if they did create a “21st Century carnival atmosphere,” as he wrote at the time, that carnival took place well outside the courtroom, not to mention far from the bridge where cops and several groups of citizens out in search of supplies met that fateful day.
Yet Wednesday, his lingering anger was evident, particularly over Justice Department lawyer Karla Dobinski’s anonymous comments on nola.com stories about the trial and department higher-ups’ reluctance to report them and disclose her name.
In wrapping up the extraordinary proceeding, Engelhardt sought to place the events in the scope of history, and honor the memories of the dead, particularly Ronald Madison, the mentally disabled man gunned down while running from police. But again, he circled back to the bad behavior on the part of several government lawyers.
“Unfortunately, this case may be best remembered” for the government’s “jiggery-pokery,” Engelhardt said, invoking an obscure term once famously used by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Maybe the government’s bungling will be Englehardt’s most vivid memory of the Danziger case. As for everyone else who’s been following this tragedy all this time, I highly doubt it.
‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.